Jun 23, 2011
Related to: Building rationalist communities, Lessons from Latter-day Saints, Holy Books (Or Rationalist Sequences) Don't Implement Themselves, Designing rationalist projects, Community roles: teachers and auxiliaries.
The ultimate question I’m trying to answer is: what should be the roles in a rationalist community?
In the previous post and this one, I outline the roles in Latter-day Saint communities along with some implications for rationalist communities. In the following posts, I will elaborate the analysis of implications.
Good sets of rules resemble programs; once developed, they can be made to run everywhere, with local modifications.
In the previous post, I discussed the role of teachers and auxiliaries. Teachers are the ones who speak, teach and lead discussions in Sunday church meetings. Auxiliaries are responsible for ensuring the well-being of the various segments of the congregation – men, women, and children.
In this post, I will discuss committees and leadership.
Committees are in charge of specific important tasks – planning activities, giving service, and so on. The general leadership appoints people to each of the positions, provides personal counseling, and plans the curriculum.
In a Latter-day Saint congregation, where 100 to 150 people come to church every week, there are a lot of committees. Committees are made up of male and female co-chairs and as many members as are necessary and available.
Fellowship Committee. This exists to help church members who move in become integrated into the ward. They follow up with leadership to make sure move-ins meet with church leadership, receive a calling (=responsibility), get home or visiting teachers, get a home or visiting teaching assignment, and so forth.
In family wards, they make sure that half the men’s organization comes over on Sunday after church to load (or unload) the U-Haul. And that the women’s organization brings over desserts, food, etc at some later time.
Missionary Committee. This helps new people start coming to meetings. For example, setting an example by inviting friends, encouraging people to invite their friends, thanking people for bringing their friends, befriending new people when they show up, making sure meeting topics are understandable to new people, asking last week’s newcomer “Hey, are you coming tomorrow?” in the right way, and making sure that they are integrating into the social structure, similar to the fellowship committee.
Mormons have a checklist for this one. If they’re a new church member, they should have a friend, a responsibility, and be “nourished by the good word of God,” ie, they should be applying the principles they learn at church into their lives. Check check and check means we’ve done our job.
Family Home Evening. This used to be my responsibility. Basically my co-chair and I would organize fun activities every Monday evening. For example: standard party games (Mafia, Psychiatrist, Pictionary), volleyball, a charity date auction. The ideal activities involved breaking up into small groups and competing on a task: a scavenger hunt, a marshmallow-and-toothpick bridge-building challenge.
Service, Temple, and Family History committees. These three committees are “outward facing” and merit mention. Service will organize days to clean a local park (or similar group task). Temple will organize trips to special buildings called temples. Family History will lend assistance in researching one’s genealogy. Basically any church member can do these things; it requires no specialized knowledge.
Equivalent “committees” for Less Wrong could support, say, cryonics and Singularity, existential threat research. Of course, the tasks would have to be designed to require less specialized knowledge, similar to perhaps open-source hacking storms (a bunch of people spend 24 hours together writing code).
Housing. This one is simple but powerful. And it isn’t even a committee, it’s just one person who maintains a Google Doc of people looking for a place to live and people looking for roommates.
Consider: the church population in my church unit is entirely composed of young single adults. Over half of the church members who don’t live with their parents live with each other. This, predictably, helps to build friendships. It probably increases the regularity of attending church meetings.
As you might have guessed by now, one main function of the general congregation-level leadership is to make sure all of these gears are grinding smoothly.
Congregations are led by a bishop, who is chosen every five years from among the congregation. They are not paid – nor is anyone else in this structure. The bishop chooses two counselors, a secretary, and various clerks to keep the records and the books. He also selects the heads of each organization: men’s organization, women’s organization, teaching organization, committees.
Together with the bishop and his counselors, they choose which people should fulfill which roles.
A key concept in Latter-day Saint leadership is that of stewardship. As the name implies, the leaders have a spiritual responsibility over each member of their congregation. People have their agency, the freedom to choose, but the leaders have a charge to help them not go astray – ie, to keep coming to church, continue living the lifestyle. This responsibility is taken pretty seriously.
The main unique role of the bishop is to provide personal counseling services for the congregation. It’s understood that if you’re struggling with addictions, having marital difficulties, or other personal problems, you should go talk to the bishop. Even when that’s not the case, the system is set up so them you have some kind of interview with the bishop once or twice a year.
I’ve had good experiences with this, just having designated time to talk privately with an older and wiser person. Think of it as a universal free counseling service.
Another role is to effectively oversee the workings of the congregation. As with most leaders, bishops consciously and unconsciously shape the culture.
If they bring or invite friends to church, others will too. If they express frustration at the eccentricities of newcomers, others will too. If they don’t pay attention to new members and whether they are getting socially integrated into the church unit, others won’t either.
If the bishop and his counselors create a high meeting quality, people are far more likely to bring their friends.
There are various levels at which attrition operates; of which bishops and other leaders are well aware. These roles are also tools to help members not go astray.
The first level of attrition is that people stop coming because they don’t have any friends. For church newcomers, if this is the case, will generally happen in the first couple months after they start coming.
Solution for bishops: seriously ask specific congregation members to befriend them. Have the men’s and women’s organizations assign them high-quality home and visiting teachers.
The second level is when people haven’t really applied church principles into their everyday lives. They might come for the friends, and they feel happy when they come, but they have no deep investment in the lifestyle.
Something will come up, it always does. Maybe they will get married to an uninterested spouse, maybe they’re tired of constant snide remarks from disapproving family, maybe their new job has them work on Sunday, maybe a new set of friends who just have other things to do.
And so they stop coming.
Solution for bishops: ask them to accept a calling that gives them definite responsibilities and a place within a tightly-knit auxiliary or committee – say, Sunday School teacher for the 10 and 11-years olds.
The third level is a conscious, seriously considered decision by a longtime member to withdraw.
A lot of the time, maybe thirty to fifty percent, this is becoming "offended" and is due to decisions made or not made by the bishop. Perhaps he told them to do something they didn’t like, or there was a dispute and he took the other side, or they feel ignored and unappreciated, or they just don’t like his style of running the congregation.
A good bishop is key to a healthy congregation.
 Paul Graham: “The other way makers learn is from examples…hackers, likewise, can learn to program by looking at good programs-- not just at what they do, but the source code too. A McDonald's franchise is controlled by rules so precise that it is practically a piece of software. Write once, run everywhere.”
 Or maybe the bishop does do something illegitimate. In one very troubled church unit I know of, three successive bishops were skimming tithing funds. (They are supposed to be unpaid.) They were caught and excommunicated, but all the old church members in the area stopped coming and the church unit still hasn’t recovered, ten to fifteen years later. But this kind of blatant misconduct is in, my experience, extremely rare.